Owning something flown on the Apollo lunar missions has always been challenging. However since last September, when the U.S. house passed a resolution granting astronauts clear title to the items they carried into space, it has become a lot easier.
Previously, confusion over whether NASA held title kept some fliers from putting their items on the block out of fear of government intervention. It was a gray area -- sometimes NASA contested title, others it didn’t.
In 2011, for example, the agency stopped the sale of a 16 mm movie camera Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell had carried to the moon. (Mitchell later donated the item, which he had valued between $60,000 and $80,000, to the Smithsonian.) Around the same time, NASA interfered with Heritage Auction’s $388,375 sale of a 70-page flight checklist James Lovell Jr. had with him on his ill-fated Apollo 13 mission.
Amherst, New Hampshire-based RR Auction has just put 858 lots up for its May 16 - 23 Aviation and Space Artifacts auction, expected to fetch upwards of $1 million. At least 85 are from Apollo 11, the first manned lunar landing and the most coveted source of space memorabilia.
Headline items range from a command module hand controller flown around the moon by Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins (expected to go for $150,000 - $200,000) to things like a six-inch EKG strip of Neil Armstrong’s heartbeat taken the moment he set foot on the moon in 1969 ($5,000 - $10,000).
What makes lunar stuff so popular? “People my age love to collect Apollo because it’s something we remember,” says Bobby Livingston, 49, vice president of marketing for RR Auction. “We saw astronauts walk on the moon, probably the greatest achievement of the 20th century.”
“There’s a whole generation of engineers and executives with disposable income now -- guys who grew up admiring the space program that have gone on to create their own firms, become quite successful. So it’s a hot market.”
Livingston says one of his favorite items on the block is an electrical schematic document carried by Apollo 17’s Eugene Cernan under the seat of the Lunar Rover he drove on the surface of the moon. “He had it with him all 22 miles in case the thing broke down,” says Livingston. “Can you imagine?” Livingston estimates the paper will fetch $20,000 to $30,000.
The RR auction also features a half-dozen rare religious memorabilia. “These guys are focused engineers. They’re fighter pilots, bad dudes. But there’s another side, a spiritual aspect,” says Livingston. “They knew they were being strapped to telephone poles and hurled at the moon at 25,000 mph. There was a prayer league most of them attended.”
Richard Jurek, president of Inland Marketing & Communications in Chicago has been accumulating space memorabilia for over 20 years. In addition to owning the world’s largest collection of flown $2 bills (astronauts consider them good luck), Jurek, 46, also appreciates religious artifacts.
“I find it interesting these very personal items are now coming to market,” he said in a recent phone interview. “We went to the moon not quite sure what we would discover. Once Buzz Aldrin said it was ’magnificent desolation,’ we kind of just brought back rocks, a geology story. But Edgar Mitchell, Charlie Duke and a bunch of others say their trips changed them, not only in how they view themselves but in mankind’s place in the universe.”
One of Jurek’s favorite items is a 2-inch by 2.5-inch microfilm prayer covenant carried to the moon by Apollo 16’s Charles Duke. The piece, the only one of its kind, was given to Duke by his companion moon-walker with the inscription: “This was presented to me by my fellow astronaut, Jim Irwin...At his suggestion, the church entered into a prayer covenant where they promised to pray for our safety.” Jurek, who plans to bid on it, expects a price between $10,000 to $15,000.
A microfilm of the entire 1,245 pages of the King James Bible flown for four months aboard the International Space Station is also up for sale. The item has Russian and American provenance, having been carried to ISS via Soyuz flight TMA-8 and returned to Earth aboard Shuttle Discovery STS-121. Jurek expects it to go for between $3,000 to $5,000.
Another religious-themed artifact: a small flashlight ($6,000 - $8,000) that Cernan, the last man on the moon gave to a young man for his Bar Mitzvah. Cernan wrote on the presentation letter (March 23, 1976): “As man seeks the challenge of his future, he needs a light to show him the way. This flashlight, simple as it might be, lighted for me my steps into the universe -- steps that were destined to guide me to the surface of the moon on Apollo XVII.”
The online auction, runs from May 16 to May 23. To bid, go to http://www.rrauction.com./preview_gallery.cfm?Category=0 or visit www.rrauction.com.
(James M. Clash is the author of “The Right Stuff: Interviews with Icons of the 1960s” (AskMen, 2012). He writes on adventure for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
Muse highlights include John Mariani on Spanish wine.